Accessibility understood as opportunity

Feb 15, 2017

A field trip to Seattle examines the relationship between people and spaces.

Central atrium of the Seattle Central Library

Last week, two studio classes went on a combined field trip to Seattle, Washington. The studios share a focus on how buildings can be better designed to accommodate a diverse range of people and abilities.

The Studios

The New Normal studio, taught by Blair Satterfield, challenges students to reimagine their concept of normality. Where accessibility is conventionally perceived as a secondary consideration to design, Blair asks his students to see it “as an opportunity to generate better form, assembly, and flow.” The studio culminates with students proposing a facility that inverts negative associations with the differently abled (damaged, broken, incomplete) to positive ones (exceptional, remarkable, productive).

Our Aging Network, taught by James Huemoeller, considers Vancouver’s rapidly aging population and wonders how the built environment can be better positioned to address this potentially impending crisis. The studio confronts the issue from the collective perspective of the city and not an individual building. It asks students to examine the complete spectrum of aging, first designing a kindergarten, and then designing a community hub with an assortment of buildings for a variety of uses.

The Trip

The Seattle trip gave students the opportunity to experience three unique places and consider the ways that circulation, accessibility, and design are operating in each. They went to the Olympic Sculpture Park, the Seattle Central Library, and the Pike Place Market. In addition, they visited Olson Kundig Architects and Gustafson Guthrie Nichol Landscape Architects.

Both the Olympic Sculpture Park and the Seattle Central Library use circulation in interesting ways, and the Pike Place Market functions as a counterpoint. For example, the library’s non-fiction collection is stored on a continuous spiral ramp that extends over four stories and can be entirely accessed without the use of stairs. This design is not only an improvement to the accessibility of the space, but is also a better means of organizing and presenting the books. Likewise, the Olympic Sculpture Park uses ramps to guide people through the space—operating on a similar principle to the library, but applied to landscape architecture.

Gum Wall under the Pike Place Market

The Gum Wall under the Pike Place Market is an entire alley covered in used chewing gum.

Ultimately, these studios discourage students from considering the various demands of human bodies on spaces as restrictions to design. Rather, the studios celebrate diversity and challenge students to consider extraordinary qualities as opportunities for improving the things that they create. In this way, design is positioned to address social issues and better serve all of the people who inhabit these spaces.